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2019-’20 Purdue Boilermakers Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Purdue Boilermakers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Tennessee Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Purdue was so close last year.

With less than one minute remaining against Virginia in last year’s Elite Eight, it looked like the Boilermakers would be heading to the Final Four. It would be the culmination of Matt Painter’s tenure with the program and his recent turnaround.

Unfortunately, as fans are well aware, that didn’t end up happening. Virginia ended up coming back, forcing overtime, and beating Purdue. And the Cavaliers didn’t stop there either, going on to win the national championship after knocking off Auburn and Texas Tech in the Final Four. In an incredible run for Virginia, its win over Purdue might have been the most ridiculous.

Purdue now has to figure out how to move on from that heartbreak.

The good news is that the program remains in great shape. The Boilermakers have made five straight NCAA Tournaments and have won at least 26 games for four straight years. Painter also has an establish model of recruiting and player development. Those kind of things are generally pretty good signs for future success.

But can the Boilermakers get it done? It’s going to be a challenge with the departure of Carsen Edwards and others. Let’s see if Purdue can get it done.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 26-10 (16-4)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #9
  • NET Rating: #11
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA (E8)

While Purdue ended up putting together a remarkable 2018-’19 season, it’s important to remember that the Boilermakers entered the season with mixed expectations. Many were skeptical about the team’s ability to replace players like Vincent Edwards, Dakota Mathias, and PJ Thompson. Most thought Purdue would still challenge for the NCAAs, but few were convinced the team could compete at an elite level.

And early on, those concerns were validated. Purdue opened the season at just 6-5 overall, including a tough loss to Texas on the road and Notre Dame on a neutral court. By mid-December, many were wondering whether the team would be able to get things back on track before Big Ten play.

But that’s when things took off. Purdue improved offensively and used its impressive home court advantage to reel off an 11-1 streak. The run included wins over Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin and the only loss came on the road against Michigan State, who Purdue beat in the rematch as noted earlier. In just a few weeks, Purdue had gone from an NCAA dark horse into a legitimate Big Ten title contender.

Purdue did blow a few games down the stretch, but ended up finishing the regular season with a 23-8 overall record and 16-4 mark in Big Ten play. That was good enough to get the Boilermakers a share of the Big Ten regular season title. Again, turning what looked like a mediocre season into a pretty special one.

The postseason also went pretty well. After a misstep against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, Purdue grabbed three wins in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Elite Eight. That included wins over Villanova and Tennessee, not exactly bad competition. As mentioned earlier, Purdue fell in dramatic fashion to Virginia. One has to wonder what Purdue might have accomplished thereafter if the team had pulled off the win, given that the Cavaliers went on to win the national championship.

Highlights of the season included wins Maryland, Michigan State, and Wisconsin in Big Ten play and the wins over Villanova and Tennessee in the postseason. Low points of the season were the losses to Minnesota and Virginia in the postseason and the loss to Notre Dame in non-conference play.

Individual statistical leaders were Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern, Carsen Edwards, and Matt Haarms. Cline led the team in assists. Eastern led the team in rebounds. Edwards led the team in minutes, points, steals, usage, and total win shares. Haarms led the team in blocks.

2. Offseason Exits

When a team puts together a championship-level season, we generally anticipate that the team will get hit pretty hard with attrition in the following offseason. For better or worse, that’s become the expectation in college basketball. And considering Purdue won the Big Ten title last season, it seemed reasonable to expect that to happen to the Boilermakers.

And while Purdue did get hit with some notable attrition, the departures weren’t on the level we often see with teams like this. That likely has a lot to do with Painter’s style of recruiting and development. Either way, Purdue got hit with manageable departures. The players leaving are Ryan Cline, Carsen Edwards, Grady Eifert, and Kyle King.

The most significant departure of the group is certainly Edwards. He was one of the best players in the Big Ten last year and was utterly fantastic in postseason player. All told, Edwards ended up averaging 24.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.9 assists last season. And most of his scoring was self-created as well, making him even more valuable. He ended up finishing third on KenPom’s national player of the year rankings.

Cline and Eifert will also be notable departures. Neither of the two were exceptional by themselves, but fit perfectly with Edwards and Painter’s offense. They were capable three-point shooters that really helped to space the floor. The two both ended up finishing with offensive ratings in the top 60 nationally, including Eifert who led the nation. Getting players that fit together is half the battle and these two definitely fit with Edwards. King won’t be a major departure as he played just 16 total minutes all year.

Replacing three players like Edwards, Cline, and Eifert won’t be easy. But given that two of the players were seniors and most thought Edwards would depart for the NBA after last season certainly makes their departures easier to endure. And Purdue still returns a quality base since only three key players left this offseason.

3. New Additions

This season, the Boilermakers are adding three new recruits, one transfer, and two walk-ons. The recruits are Mason Gillis, Brandon Newman, and Isaiah Thompson. Both Thompson and Newman are listed as guards and Gillis is listed as a power forward. All three are rated as three-star prospects by 247Sports.

The recruit receiving the most attention is Newman. He’s rated just outside the top 125 nationally and is listed at 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds. Newman could also have a reasonable path to early playing time with so many spots opening up in the backcourt this offseason.

Gillis and Thompson figure to be developmental prospects. That isn’t to say they don’t have potential, but simply to point out that both will be more likely contributors starting in 2020-’21 and beyond. Painter will hope to develop these two behind the scenes. The walk-on additions are Matt Frost and Jared Wulburn.

The transfer addition is Jahaad Proctor, who arrives as a graduate transfer from High Point. He’s a 6-foot-5 guard that should play at the two and three for the Boilermakers this season. During last season, Proctor was a pretty efficient player on a bad High Point team. Gauging how transfers will perform after “moving up” to high-major competition is always a tricky evaluation. However, Proctor certainly has an encouraging profile.

Based on how Purdue has won games over the last decade or so, this is about what you would expect the Boilermakers to be adding in a given offseason. A handful of players with promise, but most will profiles requiring development and a year or two. This class is probably going to make some noise. However, probably not this year.

4. Points of Optimism

Fans and media members spend the vast majority of every offseason discussing recruiting and which teams have the “talent” to win big in March. And most of these discussions are warranted. Recruiting matters. If you don’t buy that, go and compare the teams that win in March to the team recruiting rankings on 247Sports. It’s pretty easy to figure out which teams are the best simply by looking at the recruiting rankings.

However, with that said, it’s also important to recognize the roles that coaching and player development have as well. Having elite talent is necessary to make the Final Four and win the national championship, but for everything else, give me coaching and a proven system any day of the week. Those are the things that get you in the door.

Purdue doesn’t have an exceptionally talented roster entering this season. Players like Carsen Edwards and Caleb Swanigan aren’t around this year. But what Purdue does have is a proven head coach, a proven system, and players that have spent time developing within that system. If you’re going to overcome a potential talent deficit, that’s what you want.

Just look at the lineup Purdue started in last Friday’s exhibition win. Even with Nojel Eastern sidelined with a minor injury, Purdue started a redshirt senior, a redshirt junior, two redshirt sophomores, and a sophomore. And remember, that’s without Eastern in the lineup. Few teams can roll out that kind of experience, especially without a star player. That’s a really encouraging thing to have when you already have a winning culture.

Along with that experience, Purdue also has some potential star power. Eastern figures to be one of the players in the Big Ten this year and Matt Haarms is back upfront after playing some significant minutes last season. It would be disingenuous to suggest these two are the best two-man group in the league, but they’re certainly up there. And that’s a great place to start with rising players around them like Eric Hunter and Aaron Wheeler.

Purdue also has a variety of potential breakout players sitting on its roster. Unlike many other Big Ten programs that will have to depend on newcomers, the only newcomer expected to get substantial minutes this season is Proctor. That leaves the team in the favorable position of letting the team’s freshmen develop. Don’t be shocked if one of them shows up when we hit January or February.

The combination of experience, top-end talent, and talented newcomers make Purdue a really dangerous team coming into this season. If just one or two things break right, Purdue should once again be in the mix for a great seed in March.

5. Team Concerns

This probably came across earlier, but Purdue enters this season with less raw talent than it’s probably had some time. And while we all know the Boilermakers have turned middling prospects into quality Big Ten players before under Painter, it’s something that figures to be a red flag coming into this season.

And it’s not just overall talent, either. Purdue is losing a superstar guard in Edwards. He’s just one player and everybody knew he would be leaving after last season, but you don’t find a player like that on a yearly basis. Edwards was probably Purdue’s best player since Robbie Hummel and maybe even longer than that. He carried the offense and was a big reason why the role players produced such ridiculous numbers. It’s hard to overvalue what a player like that can do for a team.

Purdue now faces the challenge of replacing him and overcoming a roster with a bit less talent. The Boilermakers still have more than enough talent to compete (ranked fifth in the Big Ten by Verbal Commits), but one does have to wonder about how many players Painter can turn into stars in the Big Ten. The track record is there. It’s just not easy to keep turning three-stars into All-Big Ten contributors.

Shooting is also a potential concern coming into this season. Cline and Eifert were elite three-point shooters and Edwards was able to create his own shots as well. Players like Sasha Stefanovic and Aaron Wheeler showed some potential from deep last season. But can they take the next step?

The schedule also isn’t very forgiving this year. The Boilermakers play Texas and Marquette early in the season and also get Virginia and Butler later on. Purdue is going to have to figure out how to get these pieces to work together sooner rather than later. Otherwise, another rough start could be on the table.

Purdue has more than enough pieces to overcome its deficits. But the team is going to have a major challenge on its hands in replacing Edwards, who dominated the team’s offensive possessions. The Boilermakers will also have to figure out some things from three-point range to overcome the team’s departed stars.

6. Top Player

There really wasn’t much discussion to be had in this section last year. Edwards was clearly the team’s best player entering the season and he received a good share of Big Ten Player of the Year buzz in the fall. He didn’t end up winning the award, but he produced at an impressive level and was lights out in the NCAA Tournament.

But with Edwards off to the NBA, there’s a pretty big opening in this spot. Eastern appears to be the team’s best player on paper after making some noise last season. He was a monster inside and did a great job at getting to the free throw line. Eastern also showed plenty of potential on the defensive end of the floor and on the offensive boards. In a lot of ways, his skill set fits in with an old school style of basketball.

The question with Eastern is whether he can do anything from deep. He had no outside game to speak of last season and that’s a major concern for the Boilermakers. With so many shooters leaving, can Eastern succeed if he can’t shoot from deep? That’s the hope for fans, but is a reason to think somebody else might be able to challenge for this spot.

Other potential contenders here are Haarms, Proctor, and Wheeler. Fans are obviously very familiar with Haarms after the last two years, but Proctor is a nice piece from High Point and Wheeler is looking to develop after an exciting redshirt freshman year. Wheeler could really be a darkhorse here given his raw potential. Don’t be shocked if he’s the team’s breakout player this season.

The safe pick here is Eastern. He’s a proven option that’s going to get even more possessions this season. However, don’t be shocked if Proctor or Wheeler make some noise here as well.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/1 - Southern Indiana (Ex.)
  • 11/6 - Green Bay
  • 11/9 - Texas
  • 11/13 - at Marquette
  • 11/16 - Chicago State
  • 11/23 - Jacksonville State
  • 11/29 - VCU (Destin, FL)
  • 11/30 - Florida State/Tennessee (Destin, FL)
  • 12/4 - Virginia
  • 12/8 - Northwestern
  • 12/15 - at Nebraska
  • 12/17 - at Ohio
  • 12/21 - Butler (Indianapolis, IN)
  • 12/28 - Central Michigan
  • 1/2 - Minnesota
  • 1/5 - at Illinois
  • 1/9 - at Michigan
  • 1/12 - Michigan State
  • 1/18 - at Maryland
  • 1/21 - Illinois
  • 1/24 - Wisconsin
  • 1/28 - at Rutgers
  • 2/1 - at Northwestern
  • 2/5 - Iowa
  • 2/8 - at Indiana
  • 2/11 - Penn State
  • 2/15 - at Ohio State
  • 2/18 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/22 - Michigan
  • 2/27 - Indiana
  • 3/3 - at Iowa
  • 3/7 - Rutgers

Things are going to be pretty exciting for the Boilermakers this year. Regardless of whether the team lives up to the hype, this schedule is absolutely loaded. Purdue faces two teams that made the Final Four last season and that doesn’t even include matchups against potential top 15 teams like Florida State, Marquette, and Maryland. It’s not a particularly forgiving slate, but it should get fans excited.

Non-conference play is highlighted by the showdown with Virginia in early December, the trip to Florida for a game against VCU and then either Florida State or Tennessee, and the trip to Marquette in early November. Throw in games against Butler and Texas as well and it’s easy to see why this slate is so exciting. If Purdue is able to win most of these games, it should be in play for an impressive seed in March.

Purdue actually got a pretty favorable draw in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers face Michigan State at home in early January, but don’t have to make the return trip to East Lansing and have single-plays against Maryland and Ohio State. Those games are on the road, but those are arguably the top three teams (outside of Purdue) in the league. Three total games against them is one hell of a draw.

The most challenging portion of the schedule will be in early January, when Purdue faces the following:

  • 1/2 - Minnesota
  • 1/5 - at Illinois
  • 1/9 - at Michigan
  • 1/12 - Michigan State
  • 1/18 - at Maryland
  • 1/21 - Illinois
  • 1/24 - Wisconsin

Five of those games are against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season and the other two games come against what figures to be an improved Illini squad. That four game slate between January 5th and January 18th looks particularly difficult, with three of four on the road and a game against Michigan State.

Should Purdue survive that opening slate and continue to dominate at home, this slate looks really exciting. The Boilermakers have a chance to put together a really impressive resume heading into the postseason. And the favorable conference slate should put the team in Big Ten title contention should once.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Eric Hunter, Jr. (So.) - 80%
  • SG: Jahaad Proctor (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
  • SF: Nojel Eastern (Jr.) - 85%
  • PF: Aaron Wheeler (Rs. So.) - 65%
  • C: Matt Haarms (Rs. Jr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Considering that Purdue lost three proven starters from last year’s team, it’s pretty impressive to see how many solid options the Boilermakers have to start heading into this season. As noted above, this is an experienced group and at least three players figure to get serious All-Big Ten consideration at season’s end. That’s certainly exciting news for fans.

The backcourt figures to come down to Hunter and Proctor. Hunter was only a freshman last season, but made some solid contributions. His biggest challenge will be improving on his consistency. He finished with a 93.8 offensive rating last season, which isn’t great. Hunter will have to look to facilitate better and improve from deep.

Proctor is an “up transfer” from High Point. He had nice numbers there on what was a pretty mediocre mid-major team. My guess is that he’ll be efficient, but he looks more like a role player than a legitimate star. Depth options in the backcourt include freshmen Mason Gillis, Brandon Newman, and Isaiah Thompson. Additionally, Eastern could also contribute if Painter feels his contributions would be more useful here than on the wing.

The wing should be dominated by Eastern and Wheeler. My projection is that these two will be the best guys on the team and it won’t be particularly close. The good news is that the team also has some depth options behind them, if Painter needs to alternate their roles. These include the freshmen and Trevion Williams, who saw some playing time as a freshman last season.

Wheeler will be the key here and arguably the x-factor for the entire team. If there’s a player that could grow from a role player into a star, it’s Wheeler. Can he do it, though? There are some encouraging signs, but we will have to wait and see.

Upfront, Haarms figures to lock things down after playing major minutes the last few years. Evan Bourdreaux and Williams will be backup options here. Emmanuel Dowuona is also an option after redshirting last season. Expect most of the playing time to go to Haarms, who figures to be one of the league’s better big men.

All told, Purdue has plenty to work with this season for its starting lineup. Some experienced backcourt players, wings with plenty of potential, and upperclassmen big men. If the backcourt newcomers can take a step forward, watch out.

9. Team Perspective From Bryce Bennett of BTPowerhouse

“The Boilermakers find themselves at an interesting time. Coming off one of their most exciting tournament runs in recent memory, Purdue is looking to continue this momentum with a relatively new cast of characters.

There’s still key upperclassmen in Nojel Eastern and Matt Haarms, but the majority of the other big contributors will be freshmen and sophomores.

So on the face of it, it could look like Purdue might take a step back this season with the loss of Carsen Edwards, Ryan Cline, and Grady Eifert, but it’s at a point with Matt Painter where you need to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The analytics people seem to think so as well. KenPom and T-Rank both have them at no. 7 in the country in their preseason rankings.

This is a team that will probably take a slight step back offensively this season, but the defense has the chance to be pretty good. Eastern moves seamlessly on and off the ball on defense, and the dribble penetration will feed right into the shot blocking arms of Haarms. Purdue last had a top-15 defense on KenPom in 2016 and 2020 could be their next one.

As far as an outlook goes, this feels like a 3rd-4th place team in the Big Ten with a ceiling of around a Sweet Sixteen.

They’ll look slightly different this year but expect more of the same of the Boilermakers - a top Big Ten squad that’s consistent and almost impossible to defeat at home.”

10. Overall Season Outlook

No matter how you evaluate Purdue at the moment, this projects to be a “program year” for the Boilermakers. By that, I mean that Purdue’s path to success depends a lot on the model of its program and whether it can maximize decent, but not great talent. This roster doesn’t scream “top 10 team,” but that’s where Purdue is getting projected right now. It’s because fans and media members are expecting the program to figure things out, even if the roster itself doesn’t suggest marquee success.

A lot of this season will depend on three players in Eastern, Proctor, and Wheeler. All have shown signs before, but none have played at an elite level before. Purdue isn’t going to reach its season goals without one (and likely all) of these three making some serious noise. This is where the program discussion comes in. Painter has done this before and that’s why so many people expect him to do it again.

Purdue also has the challenge of navigating one of the nation’s toughest schedules, featuring a plethora of potential top 25 opponents. The Boilermakers are going to have to continue to dominate at home to get there. The team will also likely need a freshman or two to show up in January or February to help the team’s depth. Once again, Painter has shown he can find these guys when necessary. Fans have to hope that happens again.

So, can Purdue get it done? Generally speaking, I believe so. This group is good enough to compete for a top spot in the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament yet again. Expect some growing pains and a few tough losses early, but growth as the year continues. If Purdue can hit its stride by January, it has a chance to upset Michigan State for the league title due to its schedule. It should be a fun year.

Big Ten Prediction: 3rd Place